Whoosh! Issue 17 - February 1998


IAXS project #239
By Melissa Meister
Copyright © 1998 held by author
1330 words

Introduction (01)
The Others (02-04)
Xena: Warrior Princess (05-06)
The Importance of the "Sapphic Subtext" (07-08)
Conclusion (09)

The Importance of Sapphic Subtext
in Xena: Warrior Princess


There once was a pair near Amphipolis,

One of many campfire scenes which launched a thousand fanfic stories.

[01] The wonderful thing about Xena: Warrior Princess is that it is thematically accessible to everyone. Its themes are universal and they are outside the realm of race, class, sex, and sexuality. Although many television shows that have come before Xena: Warrior Princess have challenged the themes of racial tension, class struggle, and sexual stereotyping, nowhere has a show been produced before with the accessibility to gay, lesbian, and bisexual viewers as Xena: Warrior Princess has. What follows is a discussion of why this is so and why it is important.

The Others

[02] The so-called "enlightened" sexuality era of the 1990s has paved the way for greater accessibility for gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters on television. The television Powers That Be have finally clued in to the fact that there is a large population of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in America that watch television. Further, this community of viewers demand that America's little microcosm of reality, the television show, finally start portraying life as it really is. This includes not only all the colors of the rainbow, but all the sexualities as well. However, although almost every show on television now has at least one token gay, lesbian, or bisexual character, homosexuality is still one of the last taboos left on television. Even when television offered to throw us a lesbian bone in the form of Ellen (1994-), the producers of Ellen and the public did not let her be what she is. Not only did the producers make a public issue out of Ellen's coming out day (April 30, 1997), but they turned the show into the "oh-my-god, how do I explain this to myself, my friends, and my mom" show for the remainder of the season.

[03] It is great that the lead character on Ellen came out, it was an historic moment in television. However, Ellen will not be allowed to be who she is, there will have to be issues, arguments, catfights, and more stereotyping of gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters. Do heterosexuals have to run this gauntlet? Absolutely not. If you are heterosexual on television, you are allowed just to be. You do not have to run home and pray that mom will forgive you. You do not have to have your producers make a public announcement warning people that you will come out of the heterosexual closet on April 30.

[04] Of course, the argument will be brought up that television simply reflects cultural values, and heterosexuality happens to be the dominant cultural norm. That is most certainly true, but Americans look up to mainstream media as a form of reality (especially children), and if we cannot start taking on societal norms in Hollywood, which is home to some of the freest sexuality around, where do we start?

Xena: Warrior Princess

Who caused us to ask what subtext is,

Hot tub sales must have skyrocketed after this scene from A DAY IN THE LIFE.

[05] Xena: Warrior Princess is by no means made exclusively for a homosexual audience. That would be pure ratings suicide considering that a majority of people in America would identify themselves as heterosexual. However, it does not pull any punches when it comes to "Sapphic subtext" either. Openly gay producer Liz Friedman has said that she "has no interest in making [Xena and Gabrielle] heterosexual" and some people on the set at Xena: Warrior Princess, from Rob Tapert, executive producer, on down to Lucy Lawless, herself, has said that the underlying homosexual subtext of the show is not unintentional. It seems as if the cast, crew, and producers of Xena have accomplished the impossible: They have made a show that appeals to both heterosexual and homosexual viewers without frying themselves in rating losses, morality debates, token characterization, or self-absorption with the topic.

[06] Some might argue that they simply chose to portray the characters as "bisexual" because most people at the time of the "Xenaverse" were that way ("bisexual" is an anachronistic term, but it is the closest today's vocabulary can come to the sexual practices of Ancient Greeks and Romans). However, the executive producer's decision not to make Hercules or Iolaus "bisexual," and to make Aphrodite a surfer girl from the 1990s seriously undermines the historical accuracy argument. What the Powers That Be at Xena: Warrior Princess have done to the show has been intentional, and it has been wonderful.

The Importance of the "Sapphic Subtext"

But sincere or snide, we're along for the ride,

The kiss scene from THE QUEST caused subtext-o-meters to indicate all-time highs, but there is an upcoming scene in THE BITTER SUITE that will make this look minor by comparison.

[07] One may ask why homosexual subtext is so important, why so many web pages, fan fiction, and even this article is dedicated to it. First of all, XWP has the obvious importance of breaking the mold in how love can be portrayed on prime-time television. Whether one is heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise, one cannot argue the wonderful, enriching love that Xena and Gabrielle share for each other. Such a relationship is found nowhere on television. Modern society enforces a cultural 'rule' on women that it is okay to be close to another woman, but not too close. XWP pays no heed to such cultural 'cages.' Xena and Gabrielle love each other deeply, and they are not ashamed to show it in every episode.

[08] However, when one takes this love as 'Sapphic', the importance goes even beyond breaking woman-woman bonding borders. If one looks at Xena and Gabrielle's relationship through a homosexual lens, then what appears is a stable, loving relationship between two women that does not conform to any preset expectations of lesbians. Xena and Gabrielle are not stereotypical "butches" and "femmes", they are not chronically depressed, they do not question their sexuality, and they do not hold press conferences about coming out of the closet. They just are. They may have their fights, their differences, their tiffs, but they do not have to make an issue out of their sexuality. From the audience's poimt of view, they can be lesbian and still go on being heroes, warriors, and icons. They can also be heterosexual and still have the closest, most deeply heart-felt relationship on television. They can be of ambiguous sexuality and make each one of their viewers think about a pre-held cultural norm that they are breaking.


As each of us tells what the meaning is.

Subtext is in the eye of the beholder.

[09] It appears that the creators of the show have intended the latter. It is a show that can be viewed with both heterosexual and homosexual eyes without taking away from the viewing pleasure of either. XWP is an amazing show because it cannot only give homosexuals a hero and icon to look up to, but a hero and icon everyone can look up to. When it comes right down to it, the creators and writers of the show have tapped into a vein of reality that no television show has hitherto come close to. It is simply love which is important, no matter what lens it is viewed and judged through. This is an important message for people of all sexualities, and it is one that could not have been accomplished without the "Sapphic subtext."


Melissa Meister Melissa Meister
Melissa Meister is a 20 year old senior at the University of Arizona. She is majoring in Women's Studies and Humanities. Her special interests reside in identifying and analyzing the effect pop culture has on society and vice versa. She is currently writing her honors thesis on the construction of woman throughout the four ALIEN movies (ALIEN, ALIENS, ALIEN3, and ALIEN RESURRECTION). Maybe one day, she'll get a real job.
Favorite episode: Anything with Hudson Leick in it.
Favorite line: Callisto: "Here, piggy piggy piggy." RETURN OF CALLISTO (29/205)
First episode seen: HERE SHE COMES...MISS AMPHIPOLIS (35/211)
Least favorite episode: FOR HIM THE BELL TOLLS (40/16)

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